This is the story of my first attempt at organizing in the game industry. Ultimately, it was a failed attempt. No direct action was taken and we never went public. But things were tried that worked and didn’t work, and I’d like to pass those lessons along. This story starts in the spring of 2018 at the Moscone Center in San Francisco.
There has been a growing interest in bringing collective bargaining to the games industry, an industry that has never seen it and consequently has some of the worst exploitation of white-collar workers. 100-hour weeks with no paid overtime are not as uncommon as they should be. This came to a head at a panel put on by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), an outfit that’s ostensibly a worker advocacy group but is staffed and headed by executives, meant to talk about the pros and cons of unionizing. The IGDA seemed to mostly want to talk about the drawbacks. Thanks in part to the work of some self-selected labor activists in the industry who would later take the name Game Workers Unite (GWU), the panel turned into a pro-unionization rally. Lots of workers who left that discussion were excited to bring unions to their studios and the industry at large, myself among them.
Wanting something and knowing how to get it are two different things. Back in Seattle, months go by and I’m mostly idle waiting for someone to tell me what to do to get a union. Then, due in part to the misogyny that is rampant in the game industry, a coworker is fired. The reasons for the firing were as cowardly as they were inane. That’s when I learned that waiting for someone else to come along and fight for workers who weren’t fighting for themselves was a losing prospect. I reached out to a local socialist organization that was teaching the basics of workplace organizing.
We started organizing by taking coworkers (many who were as mad about the firing as I was) out for lunch at a nearby restaurant, and eventually formed a core of like-minded coworkers. We all agreed the bosses held too much unilateral power at our studio. Unfortunately, it was immediately clear that despite how unjust the firing was, folks weren’t willing to stick their necks out to try to demand a rehiring. Instead roughly twice a month we brought six coworkers out to talk about what could be run better at the studio and what should change. The problem was there was lots of talk about what the problems were without a concrete plan on how to fix them. This was incredibly demoralizing. The company also did a series of “listening sessions” where they let people vent their feelings about what had happened, after which the company would do next to nothing in response to our feedback.
After a few of these lunches, it becomes pretty clear that I was in over my head. Folks started to lose interest. What tasks I did assign to people were rarely carried out except by one person who was pretty dedicated. Then the Seattle chapter of GWU invited the IWW to one of its meetings. The IWW offered the resources our campaign needed the most: expertise and training. I joined the union and signed up for the next Organizer Training 101. A month later, I returned to the campaign with new energy.
After a number of earlier false starts, an organizing committee was formed. It was composed of myself, the person who consistently helped out, and two other folks who seemed the most interested in bringing a union to the studio. We start doing one-on-ones–intentional organizing conversations with coworkers to gauge their support for unionizing and to try and help them see that collective action can address their grievances. After a few one-on-ones, a picture started to form around a grievance we could take action on: the gender pay gap.
The strategy was simple: write a letter asking for a pay audit, so we would know if there was a gender pay gap. The letter we wrote was polite and agreeable. We’d ask folks to sign the letter if they agreed with the sentiment. Talking to coworkers about this also let us search for folks who might be good candidates to join the organizing committee. If someone signed, we asked them if they’d be interested in gathering signatures with us. This petitioning also came with a logical escalation strategy. If the bosses said yes to the audit, we’d teach the workers they could achieve things together. If the bosses said no, we could use the network of folks who had signed to do our own pay audit. This would teach folks that they don’t need the bosses to take action to make things better in the workplace.
It’s a shame we never got to put the plan into action. Layoffs hit the company. Most of the organizing committee was swept away in them. While it is unlikely we could have prevented mass layoffs, there were things that could have been done differently:
1. Start Early: Had the campaign started the day I got back from GDC I might have identified what resources the campaign needed much earlier. Waiting for a crisis to occur actually left me playing catch up to the situation.
2. Get Training: It is nearly impossible to start organizing until one has an idea of where they’re going and how to get there. The more training the better, but one can at least get started if they are taught:
- How to have an organizing one-on-one conversation.
- What the steps of a union campaign are
- What is and isn’t protected activity under labor law
3. Get a Co-Organizer: It is by definition impossible to organize alone. At minimum a co-organizer can help develop a strategy for the campaign and do one-on-ones (including with you to help you practice). I had at least one person who consistently helped drive people to and from lunches and who completed delegated tasks. But I didn’t treat them like the equal they were. Had I asked for their help on the big stuff when I needed it we might have done much better.
The last lesson I’d like to impart, more important than those last three combined is that Anyone can start organizing at their workplace, even you. Organizers don’t need to read Marx, Lenin, or Chomsky to start making small but real changes in their own work place. The only thing an organizer needs is a desire for better conditions in their shop. If you’re a worker, and especially if you’re a game worker, this is your invitation to get started. Ask yourself “what’s one thing that would make the work day easier to get through,” find the answer and congratulations: you’ve taken the first step.
Download the full issue of the July-August issue of the Seattle Worker.